27 September 2008

The National Anthem à la the SF Chron

Quick. Without using the search powers of Google, how many octaves does our national anthem span?

I pondered this very question at work yesterday, though not out of idle curiosity.

So before you read on, take a moment, and sing the (U.S.) national anthem to yourself and figure out the range. No peaking at scores, no instrumental aids, and no internet; just your voice.

If you answered 1.5 octaves (or an octave plus a fifth, which is not exactly 1.5) that is what I got. Sans score, sans piano, and sans Google, I'd like to add.

I started singing the tune in my head: "Oh-h say" (paused here, noted that this is the lowest note, which I arbitrarily called "do" and continued on)
"can you see, by" (noted that so far, it goes to a mi above the octave). . .
"rocket's red" (highest note: a fifth above the octave. Total range: 1.5 octaves.)

Well, I would like to know what version the SF Chron folks sing, b/c theirs evidently spans 2.5 octaves.

Now, there is an arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner that we sometimes do, in which the top soprano part goes a fourth above the highest note
(a high c, in our version) after one beat on "free-ee", in which case, that particular version spans 2 octaves, but even then, we're still a fifth shy of whatever version the SF Chron has in mind.

Hmm. I suppose this is the sort of thing that copy editors don't necessarily catch, b/c it's not a grammatical error? Still, you would think that it would be easy enough to do a Google search and do a little fact-checking.

(And not to nitpick, but websites that are in the business of writing (and I'm not talking about personal blogs or websites of artistic organizations, here.) really ought to learn the html for m-dashes and use them properly; or at least use two hyphens like the WSJ does. They're quite different from hyphens.)

Either way, the author's main point still holds—that the anthem is hard to sing. . .well.

Which made me wonder, are there (vocal) pieces that span 2.5 octaves? I mean, that's a pretty impressive range.

I couldn't think of any off the top of my head, but remembered the choral sections of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony being extremely annoying to sing, because of its ridiculously high range, so I checked my score. Well, the soprano section spans from a d to a freaking high b above the staff, so the range is greater than the national anthem, but not quite two octaves.

The other one I vaguely remembered having a high range is the soprano solo in Mozart's Mass in C-minor. Sure enough, within the first few pages of the soprano solo entrance in the Kyrie, Mozart has the soprano soloist go from an a-flat below the staff to a high a-flat—a jump of 2 octaves in just under 3 notes flat!

Later in Et incarnatus est, Mozart expects the soloist's voice to span from a low b (below the staff) to a high c, which is more than a 2-octave span.

I suspect that the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute also has a pretty wide range, but I do not have the score to verify this.


Sofiya said...

2.5 octaves? Are they singing some different version no one knows about? The thing about national anthems is that they are usually within a very small range so that people who don't sing that well (i.e. most people, including me) can sing it reasonably without having to strain their voices.

I think the deal with the Queen of the Night is that the high notes in "Der holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" are little squeaks, rather than actual notes. I may be wrong about this, but I can't think of too many sopranos whose range includes a high F. I think you have to get to an E flat in full voice for "Sempre libera" in La Traviata, but F is so stratospherically high that it can only really be appreciated by bats and other small rodents....

Sator Arepo said...

No, it's definitely an octave + a fifth. Which is a stretch unless you start at the bottom of your range! (For most people.)

For no reason: Dr. Z (Paul Zimmerman), a football writer over at Sports Illustrated, has a strange fetish with timing the singing of the Anthem before football games.

Patty said...

Heh ... well you are picky about accuracy in the news now, eh? ;-)

Whenever I listen to a ballgame on the radio and the anthem begins, I check the pitch and tempo, turn off the radio, and sing the thing with my horrible voice. Then I tune in again when I get past "free" and see if I agree with the singer(s) at the game.

(And I mostly turn it OFF because they are mostly terrible ... although not as terrible as I.)

anzu said...

Yeah, I thought it was absurd. I mean, I don't expect editors and fact checkers to be able to read music, but don't most people read "2.5 octaves" and think, "something doesn't sound right"? (Which is when I started singing the anthem to myself at work, and probably annoyed my coworkers!)

And an E-flat!? If it's a very quick note that is not a sudden jump, I might be able to hit a b-flat, but anything above that is really pushing it.

Opera, I'll have to check out that article. (Though when else would you sing a national anthem but before the game?)

And re: accuracy--you know, I just recently wrote a position paper on the topic of "In spite of there being a glut of information available to us via the internet, journalism will not die, b/c there is the credibility factor" or somesuch thing. Humph. I might need to reconsider my position. . .

Sator Arepo said...

Not to be a jerk or anything (but I just woke up at 4 AM), but half an octave isn't a fifth, it's a tritone.

anzu said...

1. Why is pointing out a fact being a jerk? Actually, I think I sortof qualified my 1.5, but you are right. I was being lazy. Though music math is kindof funny, b/c it's the only system where 4+5=8. (A fourth and a fifth equal an octave, that is.)

2. You are either up really really early or really really late. (I still hadn't gone to bed yet when I think you sent that comment.)

Empiricus said...

If everyone used ratios (e.g. 1/2 = one octave; 1/3 = one octave and a fifth) the world would be a blissful place with universal health care for all.

anzu said...

Sorry. I'm a theory ignoramus. Are you referring to harmonics and wavelengths?

Empiricus said...

Yeah, you got it. Or, if you prefer, string lengths (assuming equal tension). Or the placement of harmonic nodes on a string.